Life is full of paradoxes, no?
For instance, the simultaneous existence of ultimate and relative truth. Ultimately, we are all equal, yet in practice we are not treated as equals. This paradox has me thinking that what doesn’t matter does matter.
We are all equal regardless of the color of our skin. Yet people with brown skin routinely earn less money than people with white skin. We are all equal regardless of our gender, yet women under earn men. And despite their intrinsic worth as human beings, disabled people can’t always get past the stairs.
What these examples mean is that not only do people judge you by how you look and what they perceive you are, but their judgements have a real and lasting impact on your health and wealth.
Once upon a time, when I was a very little girl, my father — who had separated from my mother — came to visit and to take me on a walk.
As I sat on the floor struggling with my sandals, he said, “Get up off your ass and get your shoes on.” At that moment, I was suffused with shame and anger and I made a decision: No one would ever see me make a mistake again. As I grew up, I came to call this strategy being “beyond reproach.”
The decision I made meant that I split myself in two: the observed Anna and the unobserved Anna. Splitting myself in two has had lifelong implications. Do I care what people think of me? Yes, I do. Does it matter what they think of me?
I think it does.
What Doesn’t Matter Does Matter
Because I own a business, I read a lot of books about business. These books say that people are more likely to hire you if they like you. I will make more money if people hire me. So it seems that I do need to care what people think if I want them to hire me.
Yet if a given person doesn’t like me (or hire me) that doesn’t mean I am a bad person. After all, you can’t please all the people all the time.
This is a paradox I’m not sure how to crawl out from under.
This paradox is tied to a wound — in my case, the wound of feeling shamed and unloved as a little girl trying to put on her shoes. What my father said to me was subject to my little girl’s power of interpretation and in retrospect it’s interesting to think of the convergence of factors that caused me to resolve that interpretation into the unattainable solution of being beyond reproach.
Nevertheless: If, over the course of your life, you have been judged for the color of your skin, your class, your education level, your attractiveness (and I believe we all have been and are being judged for these very things all the time), how can it not change your perception of yourself?
I’ve written before that some things are hard to remember and easy to forget. The truth that we are all equal is hard to remember when you’re pulled out of line during airport security because you look like (or are) muslim. Especially if you have been treated differently or poorly from a young age, I think it is almost impossible not to feel some mix of shame and anger at least somewhere deep inside.
I hate the idea of being treated unjustly because it collides with my personal — and yes unreasonable — commitment to being beyond reproach. Unjust treatment makes me (secretly) worry that I deserve it while at the same time I feel angry because I know that I don’t — another paradox.
How does a human being such as myself live with what’s real and not personalize it? Especially since I’ve been personalizing it since that day on the floor close to 44 years ago when I first felt that rich cocktail of shame and anger.
Thinking of this makes me want to be alone, where I can be anything I want to be. Alone in my room with no one to judge me I am as beautiful as I feel. The minute I step outside and feel the eyes of the world on me, I feel constrained by all the judgements coming at me that some people say don’t matter.
Constrained is one thing and endangered is another. I wonder how the average black man feels walking down the street knowing that he is likely to be considered a threat and as such constantly lives under elevated threat himself. How does an unarmed black man live with the paradox that he is equal yet twice as likely as a white man to be killed by the police? Does this not effect his behavior? Does he not change where he goes, what he does, and what he says in order to increase his chances of survival? Or does he decide, F*** that. If you think I’m dangerous then dangerous I will be.
My point is that the struggle is real, and it happens both within us and in the form of attacks from the outside.
Communication and Relationship
Good communication skills and excellent relationships help people move beyond surface judgements and develop empathy. Once people know you, they are less likely to objectify you and to classify you or, in the case of the unarmed black man, kill you. If you are a powerful communicator, using both verbal and nonverbal communication, you can signal who you are perhaps more effectively. But communication is a two-way street and haters are poor listeners.
My most important relationships are with my higher power and with myself. My higher power loves me unconditionally. I think of him as a supportive lover and a caring mother (my higher power is, yes, gender fluid). I let my higher power know that I would like to be judged by my character and my actions — not by my appearance or my socio-economic status. I pray for strength, courage, and acceptance because I know that what I want and what I get may not be the same things.
I am also trying to find ways to fall ever more deeply in love with myself. I’m focused on learning who Anna is when no one is looking and who she is when she steps out of the house knowing she’s on her own. My internal communications are about remembering all the things that are easy to forget: my beauty and my value as a human being — regardless what other people say. Loving myself makes it easier to love other people.
I know I have a tendency towards shame and anger when I feel threatened. At those times I want to remember the intrinsic beauty and value of other people so as to treat everyone, always, with courtesy. It requires discipline to live by my values and treat other people well no matter how wounded I feel or whether I agree with what they do or say.
I hope that by cultivating relationships with the people and the powers that love me, remembering my history but not being controlled by it, falling in love with myself, communicating clearly, and treating people with courtesy, I can live gracefully with the paradox that what doesn’t matter does matter.
Don’t Let It Stop You
Humans are such that no matter how much the odds are stacked against us, there are always great spirits who try to beat them. Of all crazy things, there is math that can describe the phenomenon of being exceptional (Ah, the intersection between art and science).
Ever heard of Bayes’ Theorem? It’s a way to measure the actual probability that a given thing will happen to you.
The following text, which I took from the post I linked to, above, explains why tests are flawed, but the logic also applies to statistics, and science in general. Here goes:
- Tests are flawed. Tests detect things that don’t exist (false positive), and miss things that do exist (false negative).
- Tests give us test probabilities, not the real probabilities. People often consider the test results directly, without considering the errors in the tests.
- Even science is a test. At a philosophical level, scientific experiments can be considered “potentially flawed tests” and need to be treated accordingly. There is a test for a chemical, or a phenomenon, and there is the event of the phenomenon itself. Our tests and measuring equipment have some inherent rate of error.
In other words, statistics are not reality. They are just statistics. The take-home is that you cannot really tell what will happen to you based on “averages.” You are not a statistic. You are an individual.
Here’s an example from my own life: When I started Colibri Digital Marketing people told me that 50% of businesses fail in the first five years (we are in year five — pray for us!) and that, as an older (and by that I mean: not 25) woman in tech, I would face discrimination. The odds seemed stacked against me. The statistics were stacked against me.
Yet I am not “50%” and neither are you. I am Anna Colibri, with a unique set of circumstances and I knew as I started my business that I wanted to figure out a way to survive and even flourish. My thinking was that, after ten years as a stay at home mom and yoga teacher, the odds were stacked against me no matter what I tried to do, so I might as well try for what I wanted. If people wanted to be haters, that was going to have to be on them. I decided to do my best given my circumstances and if failure came because of discrimination or something inherent to, but external to me, about running a business that would not be my failure.
I guess that’s why people who are successful need to be a little delusional. You have to be willing to look at the odds and make your own choices. Or, if it’s not something you really care about, make a choice that works for you. But remember: the “safe” route doesn’t offer any guarantees because, let’s face it, there are no guarantees.
I do not live with the same level of statistical threat as, say, the average black man or even a woman who doesn’t hold an advanced degree, but it seems that we all live with a certain level of threat in our violent, unequal, and competitive society. We know taller, more attractive, whiter, males make more money than everyone else.
What we don’t know is why, despite their seeming advantages, middle aged white men have the highest suicide rate of any demographic group living in our country today.
Life is full of paradoxes. What doesn’t matter, in my opinion, does matter. But you can’t let it stop you because life is specific, varied, and unpredictable. That’s what makes it scary. That’s what makes it fun. And that’s why no matter what our circumstances are, we each have a chance that is truly, uniquely, our own.
My advice? Whatever it is, go for it!